The story of Steaua CSM EximBank Bucharest is a story of a once-dominant club that fell on hard times and nearly drifted to irrelevance, but is now is working its way back to the highest levels of European basketball. Steaua is historically among the giants of Romanian basketball; its 21 national championships are second most in league history and it has made more appearances in European competitions than any other Romanian club.
However Steaua’s last title came in 1991 and the following two decades were quiet at best, including a period in which it only operated at the junior level. However the resurrection began in 2009 when it merged BC Targoviste to become BC Steaua Turabo, which is when current team president and one of the great players in Romanian basketball history, Virgil Stanescu, became involved in the project, first as a player and later as an executive. In 2013, Steaua joined forced with CSM Bucharest and continued its rise. And today, things are looking up for the club with the best record in the Romanian League and in control of its destiny with a shot to reach the Eurocup Last 32.
Steaua was founded in 1952 and immediately stepped in as the first powerhouse in Romanian basketball. It won its first league title in 1956 and then claimed seven crowns in a row between 1958 and 1964, with the likes of Emil Nicolescu, Mihai Nedef, Andrei Folbert and Alexandru Fodor at the core of the team. Steaua made its European debut in 1957, and regularly appeared in the European competitions for 40 years.
The highlight of its European campaigns came in the 1960-61 season, when Steaua knocked off Spartak Prague in the Euroleague – then-Champions cup – quarterfinals before falling to eventual champions CSKA Moscow in the semifinals. Steaua also played the Euroleague quarterfinals in 1958 and 1964. At home, Steaua celebrated its first Romanian League and Cup double in 1966 and its 10th league title in 1970. The 1970s marked a quiet period for Steaua, though it remained a contender and advanced at least one stage in the Saporta Cup six times during that decade.
Steaua returned to domestic dominance with another title in 1978, which marked a run of 11 championships over a 13-year period, including a double in 1981. Among the stars of Steaua’s dominant decade were Costel Cernat, Anton Netolitzchi, Roman Opsitaru and Florentin Ermurache. After the Romanian Revolution in 1989, Steaua became the first Romanian club to become private, however financial troubles followed. Even though Steaua was still making Korac Cup appearances in 1996 and 1997, it soon found itself bankrupt. From 2003, Steaua would only field teams at the junior level.
The road back to relevance began in 2009 with the merger with BC Targoviste, which turned the club into BC Steaua Turabo and landed it Targoviste’s spot in Romania’s top league. For the 2010-11 season, Steaua Turabo fielded a strong team and marked its return to European competition with an appearance in the FIBA EuroChallenge. With Stanescu and Hristo Nikolov leading the interior attack and Courtney Forston at point guard, Steaua swept BC Kyiv in the qualifying round and won all three of its home games in the group stage, although it failed to advance. That season included another high as Steaua reached the Romanian Cup final before losing to CS Gaz Metan Medias.
Despite the strong season, there were growing pains. Steaua had to pull out of the league before the start of 2011-12 season and returned a year later in the second division. However Stanescu, who spent the next two seasons playing elsewhere, would return to Steaua as player and president in 2013. That was when the club joined forces with CSM Bucharest and took another big step forwards. Stanescu averaged double figures in his final season as an active player and helped the team set its sights higher both on and off the courts. As team president – in addition to taking on the role of vice president of the Romanian Basketball Federation – Stanescu helped incorporate things he had seen in his stops across Europe, including the creation of a center for outstanding youth players, which now has 1,200 players under its umbrella.
Last season the hard work behind the scenes and the result was a squad that could contend for titles. And with Titus Nicoara, Bill Amis and Pankracije Barac leading the way, that’s what Steaua did. Even though a long-awaited trophy was not added to Steaua’s cupboard, the team finished the regular season in second place and reached the playoff semifinals.
For the current season, Steaua took the next step by joining the Eurocup. While it’s been a learning experience, the addition of veteran players like Marko Marinovic and Aleksandar Rasic helped the team change its outlook. Steaua won two of its first three Eurocup games and heads into the home stretch of the regular season with a chance to advance, while also boasting the best record in the Romanian League. So far, Steaua is on the right track and one day soon we could see it emerge as one of Europe’s new superpowers.